State museums are so antiquated
Friday 20 April 2012 22.54 BST
Monumental state treasure-houses such as the Louvre or the Met ignore the stories of the individual. Exhibitions should become ever more intimate and local
I love museums and I am not alone in finding that they make me happier with each passing day. I take museums very seriously, and that sometimes leads me to angry, forceful thoughts. But I do not have it in me to speak about museums with anger.
In my childhood, there were very few museums in Istanbul. Most of them were simply preserved historical monuments or – quite rare outside the western world – they were places with an air of the government office about them.
Later, the small museums in the back streets of European cities led me to realise that museums – just like novels – can also speak for individuals.
That is not to understate the importance of the Louvre, Metropolitan Museum, Topkapı Palace, British Museum, Prado, and Pinacoteca – all of which are veritable treasures of humankind. But I am against these precious monumental institutions being used as blueprints for future museums.
Museums should explore and uncover the universe and humanity of the new and modern man emerging especially from increasingly wealthy non-western nations.
The aim of big, state-sponsored museums, on the other hand, is to represent the state. This is neither a good nor an innocent objective.
I would like to outline my thoughts in order:
1 Large national museums such as the Louvre and the Hermitage took shape and turned into essential tourist destinations, alongside the opening of royal and imperial palaces to the public. These institutions, now national symbols, have presented the story of a nation – in other words, history – as much more important than the stories of individuals. This is unfortunate: the stories of individuals are much better suited to displaying the depths of our humanity.
2 We can see that the transitions from palaces to national museums, and from epics to novels, are parallel processes. Epics are like palaces, and speak of the heroics of old kings who lived in them. National museums, then, should be like novels; but they are not.
3 We are sick and tired of museums that try to construct historical narratives of a society, community, team, nation, state, people, company or species. We all know that the ordinary, everyday stories of individuals are richer, more humane and much more joyful than the stories of colossal cultures.
4 Demonstrating the wealth of Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Iranian or Turkish history and culture is not an issue – it must, of course, be done, but it is not difficult to do. The real challenge is to use museums to tell, with the same brilliance, depth and power, the stories of the individual human beings living in these countries.
5 The measure of a museum’s success should not be its ability to represent a state, nation or company, or a particular history. It should be its capacity to reveal the humanity of individuals.
6 It is imperative that museums become smaller, more individualistic, and cheaper. This is the only way that they will ever tell stories on a human scale. Big museums with their wide doors call upon us to forget our humanity and embrace the state and its human masses. This is why millions outside the western world are afraid of going to museums.
7 The aim of present and future museums must not be to represent the state, but to recreate the world of single human beings – the same human beings who have laboured under ruthless oppressions for hundreds of years.
8 The resources that are channelled into monumental, symbolic museums should be diverted into smaller museums that tell the stories of individuals. These resources should also be used to encourage and support people in turning their own small homes and stories into exhibition spaces.
9 If objects are not uprooted from their environs and their streets, but are situated with care and ingenuity in their own natural homes, they will already portray their own stories.
10 Monumental buildings that dominate neighbourhoods and entire cities do not bring out our humanity; on the contrary, they quash it. It is more humane to be able to imagine modest museums that turn the neighbourhoods and streets, and the homes and shops nearby, into elements of the exhibition.
11 The future of museums is inside our own homes.
12 The picture is, in fact, simple:
Epics v Novels
Representation v Expression
Monuments v Homes
Histories v Stories
Nation v Person
Groups, Teams v the Individual
Large and expensive v Small and cheap
• The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul, opens on 27 April.
Translated by Ekin Oklap